From frat and sorority houses to debating teams and film clubs, joining a society is an integral part of the American college experience. But some are more exclusive, elite and enigmatic than others. Yale University’s Skull and Bones, which has included five ex-president as members, is particularly renowned for keeping its activities secret.
Formed in the early 1830s following an argument between Yale’s main debating societies, Skull and Bones was initially overseen by Alphonso Taft and William Huntington Russell. Both parties would later go on to forge a career in politics. The former served under President Ulysses S. Grant as the Secretary of War and Attorney General, while the latter was instrumental in the founding of the Republican Party.
Since 1879 the society has recruited its members during the Yale University spring tradition known as Tap Day. Only open to male students for more than a century and a half, Skull and Bones finally allowed women to join in the early part of the 1990s. Those individuals chosen are typically already significant figures on campus. And rumors about exactly what goes on behind the organization’s closed doors have continued to swirl throughout its history.
Of course, without any Yale University there wouldn’t be a Skull and Bones. Situated in the Connecticut city of New Haven, the Ivy League private research university was founded way back in the early 18th century. It sits behind only Harvard University and The College of William and Mary among America’s oldest higher education institutes.
Initially known as the Collegiate School, Yale University used to focus solely on sacred languages and theology. But by the time the American Revolution arrived it had expanded its horizons to include other science and humanities subjects. The university awarded the United States’ first ever Ph.D. in 1861 and toward the end of the century its student and faculty numbers had increased substantially.
Yale is now split into no fewer than 14 different constituent schools. Alongside the main New Haven campus downtown it also owns a West Haven campus and several New England nature and forest preserves. As of late 2019, its assets endowment is estimated to be worth an astonishing $30.3 billion.
The college also has a proud sporting history. It houses America’s first ever natural bowl stadium, the home of their football team the Yale Bulldogs. The Payne Whitney Gymnasium is the world’s second-biggest athletic complex under cover. And competing against John Hopkins University, it participated in the first reported ice hockey encounter to take place in the U.S.
The university boasts several notable landmarks including Harkness Tower and Battell Chapel. It owns various museums, libraries and galleries, too, such as the Peabody Museum of Natural History, Sterling Memorial Library and Yale Center for British Art. And it has accepted a whole host of future celebrities, politicians and academics as students over the years.
In fact, Yale has educated a highly impressive 62 Nobel laureates since its formation, as well as three winners of the Turing Award and five recipients of the Fields Medal. It has also welcomed 19 future U.S. Supreme Court Justices, 31 members of the billion-dollar club and various heads of state. Perhaps most notably, five different Presidents of the United States have studied there.
As you’d expect, the selection process for Yale is regarded as the toughest in the American college system. In 2017 nearly 33,000 students applied for a place there, but only 2,285 (6.9 percent) managed to make the grade. The good news is that once you’re in you’re highly likely to graduate within the space of six years. Only two percent of students fail to do so.
So what kind of students are most likely to get into Yale? Well, perhaps surprisingly, slightly more than half of its freshman class intake in the 2010-11 year were chosen from the public high school system. And in the same year, a tenth of those accepted were individuals who hailed from outside the United States.
As with all colleges, Yale has several unique traditions. Graduates mark their passage through the education system there by smashing bubble pipes. The Theodore Dwight Woolsey statue situated at the Old Campus is supposed to bring good luck if you give it a toe-rub. And in the mid-20th century students invented the inflatable ball game known as Bladderball.
So which future U.S. premiers, exactly, have walked down Yale’s hallowed corridors? Well William Howard Taft was the first student who went on to become U.S. president. He was later followed by Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Bush’s namesake son also studied there before rising to power in the White House.
But Yale University has also helped to shape the careers of several other major world leaders. Mario Monti and Karl Carstens, former prime ministers of Germany and Italy, respectively, are also graduates. As are the one-time presidents of Mexico and the Philippines, Ernesto Zedillo and José Paciano Laurel.
Yale has also been blessed with the presence of various royals during its eventful history. Prince Rostislav Romanov studied there in the late 19th century. Moreover, recent regal names have included Prince Akiiki Hosea Nyabongo of Russia, Olympia Bonaparte, Princess Napoléon of France and Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden.
And the college’s list of celebrity graduates reads like a Hollywood edition of Who’s Who. Paul Newman, Meryl Streep, Jodie Foster and Vincent Price are just some of the acting legends who furthered their education at Yale. Other notable actor graduates include Sigourney Weaver, Henry Winkler, Claire Danes, Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o and Edward Norton.
Composer Cole Porter, visual artist Eva Hesse and photographer Nicholas Muellner have all proved that Yale can help to develop various other kinds of artists, too. Famous authors to have studied at the college include Tom Wolfe, Sinclair Lewis and Doug Wright. Notable business graduates include Henry Luce, the co-founder of Time magazine, Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo, and Jeffrey Bewkes, the president of Time Warner.
Yale has also helped to develop several sporting greats including men’s squash champion Julian Illingworth, NBA star Chris Dudley and NFL players Gary Fencik, Dick Jauron and Chuck Mercein. It has produced several Olympic medalists, too; rower Josh West and fencer Sada Jacobson have had summer Games success, while skater Nathan Chen and Sarah Hughes have ensured that Yale has also had a presence at the Winter Games.
Many of these individuals would have been a part of the 385 different student organizations officially registered at the college. These include the Yale Dramatic Association, the Yale Political Union and the Yale College Council. And those blessed with the ability to harmonize may well have auditioned for one of the 18a cappella groups on campus, including the world-famous The Whiffenpoofs.
And then there’s the array of secret societies for which Yale has become renowned. The most historic of these are the Aurelian and Torch Honor societies, which were formed in 1910 and 1916, respectively. Others include Scroll and Key, Book and Snake and Myth and Sword. But it’s the Skull and Bones which has sparked more rumors and controversy than any other.
Skull and Bones is based at The Tomb, a windowless building which boasts a private helicopter landing pad on its roof. The select few who are tapped up by the society must go through various initiation rituals while swearing their allegiance. And the more you learn about it, the stranger and darker the group becomes.
Alexandra Robbins, who wrote a book about the society, told CBS News that potential members must disclose their entire sexual histories in front of their peers. This process apparently takes place in a “dimly-lit, cozy room” complete with roaring fire. Robbins claims that this discussion can “last anywhere from between one to three hours.”
Robbins also alleges that the organization adheres to a list of mysterious rules and proudly displays macabre relics such as Adolf Hitler’s collection of silver. She also claims that Skull and Bones even plays host to its very own prostitute. And according to the writer, initiations can include beatings and mud wrestling.
But the New York Observer’s Ron Rosenbaum alleged these were far from the strangest initiation practices. The newspaper columnist told TV network CBS that he once managed to witness from afar one particular ceremony held at night. And it made for a striking sight. Rosenbaum claimed, “A woman holds a knife and pretends to slash the throat of another person lying down before them, and there’s screaming and yelling at the neophytes.”
Describing the ceremony as a strange mixture of Count Dracula and Harry Potter, Rosenbaum continued, “There is a devil, a Don Quixote and a Pope who has one foot sheathed in a white monogrammed slipper resting on a stone skull. The initiates are led into the room one at a time. And once an initiate is inside, the Bonesmen shriek at him.”
Rosenbaum then added, “Finally, the Bonesman is shoved to his knees in front of Don Quixote as the shrieking crowd falls silent. And Don Quixote lifts his sword and taps the Bonesman on his left shoulder and says, ‘By order of our order, I dub thee Knight of Eulogia.’” The columnist described the arcane ritual as “a lot of mumbo-jumbo” but he added that it appeared to have great meaning for those participating.
According to Rosenbaum, there’s one particular political dynasty who knows all about such a practice. He told CBS, “Prescott Bush, George W.’s grandfather, and a band of Bonesmen, robbed the grave of Geronimo, took the skull and some personal relics of the Apache chief and brought them back to the tomb. There is still a glass case, Bonesmen tell me, within the tomb that displays a skull that they all refer to as Geronimo.”
So what does Rosenbaum make of the society’s obsession with bones and death? He argues, “All this sort of thing I think is designed to give them the sense that, and it’s very true, life is short. You can spend it, if you have a privileged background, enjoying yourself, contributing nothing, or you can spend it making a contribution.”
And what exactly do members have to gain from undergoing such unusual practices? Robbins reckons that, “I believe the point of the year in the tomb is to forge such a strong bond between these 15 new members that after they graduate, for them to betray Skull and Bones would mean they’d have to betray their 14 closest friends.” And Robbins sure has plenty of first-hand accounts to back her theory up.
In fact, Robbins managed to speak to approximately 100 former members of the secret society who had become frustrated with all of the hush-hush drama. Incredibly, this makes up about an eighth of all the Bonesmen still alive today. Robbins told CBS, “Skull and Bones is so tiny. That’s what makes this staggering. There are only 15 people a year, which means there are about 800 living members at any one time.”
Yet despite this relatively small number, many Bonesmen have still managed to attain a high level of power in American society. Robbins said, “They do have many individuals in influential positions. And that’s why this is something that we need to know about.” In fact, President George W. Bush appointed five of his fellow Skull and Bones members to serve in his administration.
Unsurprisingly, Bush has been reluctant to talk about his experiences in Skull and Bones. In 2004 he was asked by Tim Russert on TV program Meet the Press about his time in the secret society. Bush responded, “It’s so secret we can’t talk about it.” His presidential campaign opponent John Kerry, a fellow Bonesman, asked Russert, “You trying to get rid of me here?”
Of course, the Bush dynasty aren’t the only Skull and Bones members to have gone on to greater things after graduating from Yale. The 27th POTUS William Howard Taft, whose father Alphonso co-founded the society, was also a valued member. He was even given the nickname of “Magog” during his stint there, which allegedly meant he was the organization’s most sexually-experienced member at the time.
Other notable Bonesmen include the Father of American Football, Walter Camp, FedEx CEO Frederick Wallace Smith, astrophysicist Lyman Spitzer and National Review founder William F. Buckley. More recent members include Steven Mnuchin and Dana Milbank. The former is currently the United States’ Secretary of Treasury while the latter is a political journalist.
As a result, some have compared the inner workings of the secret society to that of the Mob. But Rosenbaum argued, “I think Skull and Bones has had slightly more success than the Mafia, in the sense that the leaders of the five families are all doing 100 years in jail. And the leaders of the Skull and Bones families are doing four and eight years in the White House.”
But despite all the talk of nocturnal rituals and world domination, one conservative commentator believes that life in Skull and Bones is actually pretty boring. David Brooks told CBS, “My view of secret societies is they’re like the first-class cabin in airplanes. They’re really impressive until you get into them, and then once you’re there they’re a little dull.”
Brooks then continued, “So you hear all these conspiracy theories about Skull and Bones. And to me, to be in one of these organizations, you have to have an incredibly high tolerance for tedium ’cause you’re sittin’ around talking, talking and talking. You’re not running the world, you’re just gassing.”
Once the sole preserve of straight, upper-class white men, Skull and Bones has widened its remit in recent times. After several attempts, women were finally accepted into the organization in the 1990s. Brooks also claimed, “It has gays who got the SAT scores, it’s got the gays who got the straight As. It’s got the blacks who are the president[s] of the right associations. It’s different criteria. More multicultural, but it’s still an elite, selective institution.”
Brooks also agreed that once you’re in Skull and Bones, you’re in it for life. He remarked, “You take these young strivers, you put them in this weird castle. They spill their guts with each other, fine. But they learn something beyond themselves. They learn a commitment to each other, they learn a commitment to the community.”
“And maybe they inherit some of those old ideals of public service that are missing in a lot of other parts of the country,” added Brooks. “You know, they say, they say the motto at Yale is, ‘For God, for country, and for Yale.’ At Bones, I would think it’s ‘For Bones.’”